To Run Full Speed in the Dark: An Interview with Steve Scafidi by Cate Lycurgus

November 3, 2017

Steve Scafidi is the author of Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), For Love of Common Words (LSU 2006), The Cabinetmaker’s Window (LSU 2014), To the Bramble and the Briar (University of Arkansas Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Songs for the Carry-On (Q Avenue Press, 2013). He has won the Larry Levis Reading Prize, the James Boatwright Prize and the Miller Williams Prize. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He works as a cabinetmaker and lives with his family in Summit Point, West Virginia.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: It seems I could begin with anything—skinny-dipping or arson-revenge, a rocking chair bookcase or prize pumpkin, pot of pasta or Lincoln’s penchant for octopus foreskin—and segue into a Steve Scafidi poem. Your pieces navigate the public, particular, and imaginative so seamlessly; it’s hard to fathom the disparate threads on their own. So at the risk of simplicity, I’ll start by asking—where does a poem come from, for you?

Steve Scafidi: My poems come from the mundane places all poems come from: observation and the sensual experience of the world around me, dream, anxiety, the overheard miscellany of wandering through the day. Wishes, despairs, moods, inklings. A lust for something or someone, new loss, being shattered, being mended. There is the visible and invisible wave of experience that washes over and it wants to kill you unless you learn to swim in it or ride it. Poets ride those waves. So much of living is graceless and murderous and unrelenting. We are in the grip of things. The poem offers us as readers and writers some clarity and quiet and power. To say what we mean, to say the truth of our own experience–that has always been the privilege and duty of the lyric poet.

CL: These days I feel especially susceptible to those waves—both personal and societal—that can take one under. And I like the image of riding them—I think of the surfers near me, who swim at the waves’ mercy but through paying attention to tide and instinct, maybe, manage to stand up and catch one where I can rarely even envision it. Picturing, or imagining what one wants to do seems key, and one of the powers of poetry, too. All the time I say (or think I believe) writers can create the worlds we want, but I don’t know that we can. What sort of worlds do you create in your poems?

SS: My poems, like most, are tangents and variations and riffs on what I see. I don’t consider my poems otherworldly, but rooted in experience. But I like Wallace Stevens’ demand that the imagination rise up to meet reality and to push back. In that tension and stress we survive the real and also shape it however slightly. Reality needs the imagination to be at all—that is my understanding. My poems do enjoy strangeness and the improbable, and every day I see baffling things that amaze. For example the other day, I saw a hawk grab a snake from the top of the Shenandoah and fly off with it twisting in its talons. I had never seen that before though it must happen a lot. I keep seeing it in my mind—so beautiful and freaky. My favorite poems are beautiful and freaky, an act of wonder that somehow illuminates the real.

CL: How do you let imagination take over, or when does it? Do poets have an obligation to imagine, even when it might not be ‘true’?

SS: I think to write poems it is useful to know how to run full speed in the dark. Knowing how to do that will send you over cliffs and into traffic and get you killed and that is what you want. To write poems we need our pencils, our hands and our heads but if we are going to write with our whole lives then we need to let the language play out with abandon. Learning to fail at your point entirely or to arrive somewhere else circuitously, is helpful. It allows for music and play in the language—those vital forces that make poetry recognizable. At the end of a poem where we arrive is never what we planned—ever. We might get at the truth of things that way or we may simply confront it on the street and fight with it. Whatever the case, the running of the imagination, the play of the language need the gravity and circumstance of our lives to transform experience into poems. Then if we let the limiting forces of circumstance and sorrow and boundary enter the play, we get poems. All of the poems I love involve brokenness and death and loss or desire and also an enormous amount of that ethereal force that is our play, our dream. It is the birdsong at the funeral.

I think all writers are at risk of going under the waves of circumstance and losing control of our lives and disappearing. Right now I am so busy trying to make money to pay bills that I am drowning as a writer. Poetry has always been a life of passionate obsession and that is now unsustainable. I may return to life or die off—I don’t know. Every poet does the private math of such a life and comes out equal or above zero in order to persist. If writing poems subtracts and one lives below zero, you stop. As far as writer’s block and being paralyzed as a writer, I find that much of that is fear. Fear of being candid, fear of what is true and fear of failure will all stop a writer. There are so many ways a writer or painter or film-maker or any artist dies. It is almost unremarkable how many artists disappear from themselves every day. It is common. It is uncommon to find a way to persist, to keep at the joyful parts and cultivate delight enough to survive whatever difficulty arises from within you. It seems the first thing a stuck-writer forgets is the importance of delight, of what absolute secret joy there was once to writing and reading. When that goes it all falls apart. I’d tell a writer who is stuck or lost to focus on the pleasure of the art and let everything else go. The pleasure leads us to what we need; it protects us, too, as we deal with difficult things. I am talking about the pleasure of words. Something simple. Also, thought and worry kill writing. Let your writing think for you and then you will begin to get somewhere. Though I am trying not to write poems right now I am secretly writing when I can, for the pleasure—that interior feeling of lava moving and setting the forests and the fields on fire that is so lovely.

CL: All so good to hear and remember; I know too often I let fear get in my way. A fearless poem of yours, and one of your first pieces that struck me, is “The Boy Inside the Pumpkin,” where a town finds a boy inside a prize pumpkin laying “quietly in the world like a fact of the unlikely” moving quickly to the another unlikely boy found dead on a baseball diamond. I’ve included its entirety below:

At five hundred and thirty pounds it won the blue ribbon
at the Fredrick County Fair and because all such vegetables
are too bitter to eat something had to be done—

and it was decided to haul the pumpkin to the river and the boy
inside the pumpkin meanwhile lay curled in the dark mash
while they rolled it to the edge of the tailgate and heaved it

to the ground and he must have been in there all spring and all
summer and through the long hot hours must have grown
restless in the goop although he looked almost peaceful lying

naked by the river among the broken loaves and the seeds where
the ambulance drivers stood on their knees amazed
beside the boy opening his eyes as the slow Potomac moved

to the Chesapeake bay and the ocean where the waves make
their way to every coast in the world and the boy inside
the pumpkin lies quietly in this world like a fact of the unlikely

and the most unlikely things happen everyday in this world
and we go on unchanged and a body was found
on a baseball diamond in Frederick Maryland last spring

wearing only a t-shirt face down with both arms underneath
the body and the details are listed in the Metro Section
of the Washington Post and so when you read about the child

you learn he was only nine years old and had a faint birthmark
the exact shape of Kentucky on the small of his back
and could talk like a duck when he wanted to and you learn

the most unspeakable things in the slender Metro Section
of the Washington Post and it corrupts your sense
of the world to know how often the impossible happens upon us

without mercy and it is not the fit subject of poetry and it is
offensive to redeem the horror of that boy’s last hours
but I can’t stop trying to salvage something from the murderous

and the poisonous and last spring some small ordinary blossoms
grew suddenly more gigantic everyday and the boy inside
the vine became the boy inside the pumpkin who became

a turning in the darkness no one noticed although for a week
hundreds of people at the fair stroked the fat sides of
the pumpkin and were amazed and a boy leans up on his elbows

now in the moss beside the river and looks around bewildered
and asks for his mother and his father and they are delivered
amazed and these things never happen. They happen everyday.

The otherworldly blurs with quotidian brutality, and I wonder about that blur as a strategy, to face what you might not otherwise be able to write? In a time where news seems ever more necessary to respond to, and also more paralyzing, how do you begin? From what vantage point do you approach the unspeakable?

SS: That is kind of you. When I feel hateful and want to burn all my poems down, this is the only poem that I would keep. Writing this took me a long time and I tried over a hundred different discrete poems or drafts until I found this way. My wife was pregnant with our second child when I heard of the rape and murder of the boy in the poem. It paralyzed me—those two contradictory facts: a new life coming to the world—to my house—and the savage torture and murder of another young life nearby. This poem is trying to make me sane: to understand a new life can be a blessing and not a curse.

Writing poems is useful to the writer and the reader sometimes and this poem was the most useful poem I ever wrote. It returned me to the destroying world with a sense of calm and renewed joy. Such a return seems (and is) impossible sometimes but every poem we write enacts such a return. That is the sacred part of making—the new bowl in the potter’s hand and the milk she pours into it this morning. I don’t have advice or insight into dealing with the unspeakable except this. The unspeakable is sometimes the brick wall everyone warns you from ramming your body into. My advice about brick walls is to ram your body against it constantly and harder every time. Let the brute force be pure pleasure you take in the writing. For example if you are stuck with the feeling that everyone writes poems about a dead dog and so you have unconsciously forbidden it, and now are stuck, then write 30 poems in a day about a dead dog. That is what I mean about brute force and the defiant use of wit against what stops you. An artist can overcome anything through such force or wit. By outwitting what comes at you and by repeatedly going forward everything difficult will fall at your feet. That is my faith—in the imagination.

CL: Oh! I love that injunction—to ram against the brick wall constantly and harder—for the moments of being so alive that we feel annihilated, no? I’m also intrigued by your idea of speed—so many of your poems use a single sentence, or hardly any punctuation, and so seem to barrel down the page. Does this happen consciously, and how do you reenter that flood to revise or shape the thinking the poem has done? Also, I notice often you’ll end on a perfect rhyme, or on a rhymed pattern. How do you think about resolutions in poems, or poem to poem, through collections that feel like an open dialogue with the universe?

SS: Everything you say about my poems—their speed and their rhyming loudly and truly, especially at the end of things—is mannerism now and probably should be stopped. I have good friends who are great poets who have warned me that what I do so often, too often, risks boredom and distrust in the reader. They are right. As writers we are often shifting between image and rhetoric and music in our poems and because I find poems a rhythmic musical art primarily, I end up singing or stomping my foot especially near the end. But I listen for that rhythm, that pleasing wonderful burn from the very first line. To revise I usually stop the rhythm and start it up again many times and let the trance of it build and lead me through what I am saying hopefully to some essential surprise or inevitable moment I have not suspected. All of my revision usually leads to a surprise—some sudden un-guessed-at sense of getting closer to what I need. Or it is the surprise that this is really going no further. The propulsion of music feels graceful and is partly how I recognize my poems, so I really won’t change. Every day, mostly, feels too fast. I like my poems that way too. So I will write a poem as it pleases me and I will live in my oblivion if that is the price. And it is. The feeling of being forgotten as a person and as a writer is physical and real like a deep shadow—of the sun behind a cloud. Do you feel it also? That shadow-feeling is in all of my poems and so I’m usually busy striking matches with rhymes, to make that pleasure-burn of music in words. The English sonnet’s rhymed couplet traumatized me with pleasure when I was a teenager and now I like to exit poems always through a fiery door.

CL: I feel it. I have the same strike-spark impulse to warm my hands on an ordinary Wednesday. So many of your pieces navigate the brutality and wonder of the world, implicitly through their curatorial eye, or explicitly or through addressing mortality. Here I think of the ends of “Thank you Lord for the Dark Ablaze” which ends with “green is the mind of the spring returning/ and dying a song the body is learning/which I will not sing or step to although/every day—oh—that is exactly what I do.” You enact a defiant waltz with both death and god, and so I’m curious the way your poems act as prayers, or attempt to negotiate faith.

SS: Wow, what a beautiful thing to say. I grew up in a Catholic family who chanted a whole string of prayers every night—as a group—just before bed and every one of those prayers spoke explicitly of our deaths. The chant was like song and it may be why I am a poet at all, for singing of death was to sing of my salvation from death. I’m not religious like that anymore, but I wonder if that equation is still working in me: to sing of death is to free oneself from it. Well, no god or poem will ever save me from destruction and that is fine. But I love the human imagination from which came our gods and our grand ideas and our holy books and our erotic poems and I have faith in it. It is my beloved—the imagination. I read the Song of Songs sometimes as an allegory of what goes on between the writer and the imagination. We are beloved to one another and we prosper in that way of companionship—we help each other live. Or else things fall apart—and they often do—and we die. Aren’t all poets, all writers of any kind, expressing a deep faith in some invisible other? Someone who might listen to our lines and be moved? Isn’t all writing faithfulness? Poetry, “it survives,” as Auden said, “as a way of happening, a mouth.” Lyric poets have always spoken to the invisible dead, to gods, to creatures of the land and the air, to our lovely shattered selves, to someone lost or found, to beauty itself. Whatever we cannot understand we sing to—and sometimes it sings back.

CL: Thank you so much, Steve, for your singing, too!

SS: Before we close, I also want to share one of the oldest lyric poems we have. The singing- est poem we have for being so enduring. It was written in the fifth century BC by the Greek poet Simonides and translated by the great Sherod Santos.

Dragonfly

Being no more than a man, don’t pretend
you can tell what the new day
brings, nor that, seeing someone happy,

you know just how that happiness will end.
Things change—we never know why—
with the zigzag speed of a long-winged fly.

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

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